PCPCS testifies against anti-Cyber School bill.

February 22, 2012

On February 15th 2012, PCPCS President, Lawrence Jones, testified before the PA Senate Education Committee against House Bill 1973, a bill that would severely defund Cyber Charter Schools in Pennsylvania.

In his testimony he emphasized that “charter schools, both brick and mortar and cyber, have brought competition, innovation and quality choice options to the system of public education.” He highlighted changes that the coalition would like to see in the charter school law, including the following:

  • Creation of a statewide authorizer for charter schools;
  • Addressing the broken funding formula for charter schools and cyber charter schools;
  • Address conflicts of interest and ensure financial transparency of taxpayer funds;
  • Develop a fair, consistent, and transparency measure for high quality schools.

Jones also took issue with HB 1973. “The proposed amendment demonstrates astounding lack of knowledge regarding current applicable law and a woeful misunderstanding of how charter schools are authorized and function,” he stated. “If implemented, this amendment will create redundancy and confusion with existing law and have impacts that reach far beyond the stated purpose of the amendment. HB 1973 is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, purporting to reform charter operations with the true intent of killing cyber charter schools.”

 

Here is his full testimony before the Education Committee: 

Good morning Chairman Clymer, Chairman Roebuck, members of the Education Committee, and members of the legislature. M y name i s Lawrence F. Jones, Jr, and I am testifying in my role as the President of the Pennsylvania Coalition o f Public Charter Schools (PCPCS). I am also the CEO and Founding Team member of the Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School, a charter school serving 435 students in grades 5 t o 8 in Southwest Philadelphia.

In the past fourteen years, charter schools, both brick & mortar and cyber, have brought competition, innovation, and quality choice options t o the system of public education in Pennsylvania. In short, charter schools have changed the landscape of education in Pennsylvania. In order for Pennsylvania’s children to compete on the world stage, a new and improved public education system must evolve; a system that is dynamic, student based, and capable o f adapting t o the ever changing world in which we live. We must also be mindful of ensuring that our system of public education is fiscally responsible. In other words, we must ensure that public education i s providing parents with the best bang for their buck. Pennsylvania’s public charter schools, both brick and mortar and cyber, are already providing high quality education to Pennsylvania’s children for 30% less than taxpayers are paying t o school districts. Respectfully, the legislature should be looking into how these savings can be replicated in the broader public school system and passed on to the taxpayer.

Recently, there have been several proposed changes in Pennsylvania’s charter school legislation. Overhauling the charter law o f 1997 is long overdue. However, the legislation that will ultimately be passed in Pennsylvania will either serve t o promote high quality public charter schools or derail the charter school movement, thereby retarding the growth and development of the pubic education system. Today, my colleagues and I would like to provide facts and operational information related to proposed charter legislation. While some of our testimony will address the overall impact of legislation, the focus will be on cyber charter schools for this hearing.

House Bill 1348 and SBl addresses many updates and upgrades of the 1997 charter law, the 2002 cyber charter legislation, and subsequent amendments. Specific changes that wi l l provide a positive impact for Pennsylvania’s public education system are:

The creation of a statewide authorizer for charter schools:

Since 1997, the only authorizers for brick and mortar charter schools i n the state have been the school districts – and many have not done their job well. Processes, procedures, and criteria are different i n every district and local politics and perceived financial threat posed by effective charters frequently override the district’s ability t o be an effective authorizer. Urban Pathways Charter School in Pittsburgh has succeeded i n graduating 100% of their seniors in the last three years, with a 100% acceptance college acceptance rate. One of their students received one of only six ful l scholarships in .

The current system i s inequitable t o everyone and the legislation does propose a funding commission to be created t o review and make recommendations on a more equitable funding formula.The bottom line is that charters are receiving, and effectively educating children, for between 59% and 80% of the money that the taxpayer is paying t o the school district. And that’s a threat, not t o the quality of education in this state, but to every traditional form of the public education system. The entire funding issue must be discussed i n total; with members of the charter community involved as active contributors t o the solution.

Address conflicts of interest and ensure financial transparency of taxpayer funds:

We agree, and contend that the proposed legislation actually makes charter schools moreaccountable and transparent. And we welcome that. SB 1 and HI3 1348 is specifically addressing accountability and transparency by aligning charter schools with the existing Public Officials Ethics Act and does not need t o be repeated or confused in the manner proposed by HB 1973, which I will discuss below.

Develop a fair, consistent, and transparent measure for high quality schools:

HB 1348 mandates that the independent authorizer creates a quality matrix for charter schools. PCPCS believes that identifying a t o o l that will provide a fair, consistent, and transparent measure for quality i s a key t o both improving quality and ensuring that schools n o t performing at a high level or making strong progress towards doing so are closed. Additionally, a measure should capture academic, governance/compliance, and fiscal performance for charter schools t o give an accurate depiction o f overall school quality. 

Increase charter renewal terms to ten (10) years:

Increasing charter renewal from five years t o ten years has multiple benefits for charter schools, authorizers, and taxpayers. First, a ten year renewal term allows charter schools t o adequately plan academically, programmatically, and fiscally. Second, the augmentation of the renewal term allows authorizers to continue to have ongoing (annual as opposed t o every five years) evaluation of charter schools, while reducing the number of full five year renewals. This would allow authorizers t o focus more time and resources on charter renewals to ensure a comprehensive and rigorous renewal process. A third benefit is the improvement in charter schools’ ability t o borrow money. A longer charter term equates t o more stable organizations and subsequent lower interest rates. This i s a huge savings for taxpayers. It should be noted that many states have charter renewal terms of ten years or greater. This is considered a commonly accepted practice.

Funding and advertising: 

HB 1973 proposes severe restrictions on cyber charter school fund balances and advertising which demonstrate a lack of understanding about cyber charter school and school district dynamics. Half of the 400 school districts refuse t o pay for their students enrolled in cyber charter schools, forcing Cybers into the four month long redirection process and often into procurement of loans t o cover operating costs. This means that cyber schools are being forced to use taxpayer dollars t o pay interest simply because t h e school district refused t o pay. Cyber charters need t o retain a fund balance so that taxpayer dollars that currently go to lending institutions and attorneys can instead be used t o educate children. Imagine what it would be like to run the government i f half o f Pennsylvania taxpayers simply refused t o pay their taxes and there were absolutely no recourse t o force them t o do so. 

As far as advertising is concerned, unlike school districts, cybers do not have a captive group of students who must attend the school within geographic boundaries. Cybers must use advertising to inform and educate parents to what may be a better option for their child. Remember, monopolies operate in a world devoid of competition. There i s no need for monopolies to advertise.

Also, the average “actual cost” recommendation in the amendment proposed by Representative Fleck sounds enticing but, at its core, is an overly simplistic understanding of educational funding in Pennsylvania. Average anything is a horrible basis upon which to legislate. The average person in Pennsylvania is probably female, white, and in her mid-40s. If the House and Senate started basing all legislation on this assumption of the average Pennsylvanian, the result would be horrendous – including the elimination of all men’s rooms in the State. That sounds preposterous, but that’s exactly what the Fleck amendment proposes to do. The average annual cost proposal is not only simplistic, it would not only destroy some of the best cyber schools in the State b u t would harm most the poorest districts as well as those that have been most fiscally responsible.

Let’s assume for a minute that an actual cost as proposed in the Fleck amendment can be developed. If it can, then another important question needs t o be asked by people who are truly interested in the effectiveness o f education in this State. I f a cyber charter, which is already delivering effective education t o students at 30% less than the taxpayer is paying to the school district, can do it for even less, then why can’t the school district do the same?

Reversion of Cybers to school districts.

This is by far the most draconian and frightening aspect of HB 1973. Not only does it give unprecedented and illegal collateral power to school districts, it supersedes the Pennsylvania Department of Education as the chartering, monitoring, and revoking entity, and delivers to the school district a ready- made program whose operations those districts can assume and thus, thwart the Unfair Labor Practices Act. There are a growing number o f school districts and intermediate units which while joining their colleagues i n the anti-cyber charter school rhetoric are, at the same time, creating, implementing and promoting their own district cyber programs, modeling on existing cyber charter schools.

Other provisions.

The amendment offered by Representative Fleck also seeks to characterize cyber school teachers as less than a public employee despite being subject to public employee related statutes and PSERS (discriminatory), forces enrollment caps on Cybers (illegal), places truancy reporting responsibilities on cybers that already exist in other organizations (redundant and a waste of taxpayer dollars), and prohibits enrollment of students by cybers until it is too late for students t o receive requisite educational materials t o begin a school year (unconscionable).

HB 1973 is a poorly conceived, fundamentally inaccurate, and unnecessary piece of proposed legislation. To include aspects of the amendment in any proposed charter legislation would be counterproductive, confusing, and simply wrong.

In closing, it i s clear to me that we are at a pivotal time in Pennsylvania’s education reform movement. The early success of charter schools can either be a firm foundation upon which a new child centered system of public education will be built, o r another attempt at reform that was bastardized and destroyed by the status quo. To ensure the brightest possible future for our children and our state, I implore each of you t o frame every discussion on public education around what is best for our children, rather than what i s best for a specific system, whether that system be traditional school districts or charter schools. We must begin and end each discussion with what is best for children. I thank you for your time and consideration o f this most important matter.

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